Members of Afghanistan's women's youth development soccer team arrived in Britain early Thursday after being flown from Pakistan with the help of a New York rabbi, Premier League side Leeds United and Kim Kardashian West.
A plane chartered by the reality star and carrying more than 30 teenage players and their families, about 130 people in all, landed at Stansted Airport near London. The players will spend 10 days in coronavirus quarantine before starting new lives in Britain.
- Don't have ESPN? Get instant access
Britain and other countries evacuated thousands of Afghans in a rushed airlift as Kabul fell to Taliban militants in August. Many more people have since left overland for neighbouring countries in hopes of travelling on to the west.
Women playing sports was seen as a political act of defiance against the Taliban, and hundreds of female athletes have left Afghanistan since the group returned to power and began curbing women's education and freedoms.
Khalida Popal, a former captain of Afghanistan's national women's team who has spearheaded evacuation efforts for female athletes, said she felt "so happy and so relieved" that the girls and women were out of danger.
"Many of those families left their houses when the Taliban took over. Their houses were burnt down," Popal told The Associated Press. "Some of their family members were killed or taken by Taliban. So the danger and the stress was very high, and that's why it was very important to move fast to get them outside Afghanistan."
Australia evacuated the members of Afghanistan's national women's football team, and the youth girls' team was resettled in Portugal.
Leeds chairman Andrea Radrizzani praised the club's involvement and tweeted: "First chapter written today! When I received a call asking help to rescue the youth [women's] team from Afghanistan, I didn't know even from where to start.
first chapter written today! When I received a call asking help to rescue the youth w team from Afghanistan,I didn't know even from where to start. Today they flew to UK. Proud to be part of the team to make this real. Let's dream one day they will play in @LUFC💛💙 pic.twitter.com/XLPv6IXByi— Andrea Radrizzani (@andrearadri) November 18, 2021
"Today they flew to UK. Proud to be part of the team to make this real. Let's dream one day they will play in Leeds United FC."
Members of the development team, many of whom come from poor families in the country's provinces, managed to reach Pakistan and eventually to secure U.K. visas. But they were left in limbo for weeks with no flight out of the country as the time limit on their Pakistani visas ticked down.
The team got help from the Tzedek Association, a nonprofit U.S. group that previously helped the last known member of Kabul's Jewish community leave Afghanistan.
The group's founder, Rabbi Moshe Margaretten, has worked with reality TV star Kardashian West on criminal justice reform in the U.S. He reached out to her to help pay for a chartered plane to the U.K.
"Maybe an hour later, after the Zoom call, I got a text message that Kim wants to fund the entire flight," Margaretten said.
Kardashian West's spokesperson confirmed that the star and her brand Skims had chartered the flight.